Progressives often see the opposition to the welfare state from conservatives and libertarians as rooted in heartlessness. But is that true?

No doubt there are heartless conservatives and libertarians around – just as there are heartless members of any large group into which anyone can self-identify. But I think there is a common misunderstanding afoot that might be driving part of this perception, one that I want to spend a bit of time unpacking here.

Both conservatives and libertarians frequently make comments like “the welfare state diminishes personal responsibility.” I think progressives often misunderstand this as saying “If you’re struggling, fixing that is your problem. Don’t expect any help from me or anyone else, just pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and get your life on track.” Again, I don’t want to deny that anyone has ever expressed such a sentiment. But presenting this as the standard view of the relationship between helping those who are struggling and personal responsibility is, if not a literal straw man argument, certainly a weak man argument – a logical fallacy Scott Alexander once described in this way:

The straw man is a terrible argument nobody really holds, which was only invented so your side had something easy to defeat. The weak man is a terrible argument that only a few unrepresentative people hold, which was only brought to prominence so your side had something easy to defeat.

The argument from personal responsibility I described above is the weak man version of the argument. The stronger and more representative version is something more akin to this: you have a personal responsibility to help people who are in need. When you see your friends, your family, or members of your community struggling, you shouldn’t be looking to city hall or to the state legislature and wondering what they are going to do about it. You should be helping them, directly. To turn away from your duty of care to those close to you, and outsource it to distant state bureaucrats, is to abandon your personal responsibility.

A historical perspective of this view can be found in the book From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890 – 1967. The author, David Beito, points out that prior to the rise of large-scale welfare services, the country was filled with fraternal societies and mutual aid organizations that enabled communities to organize and support each other in times of need. This was especially useful for the most marginalized communities in America – racial minorities, for example, or women, for whom the official system was not particularly concerned. Beito documents that as the welfare state was introduced and expanded, it eventually crowded out these kinds of community centered support networks, driving them all but extinct today.

There are many reasons to find this regrettable, but one worth emphasizing is how these bottom-up mutual aid organizations helped form and maintain the kind of social fabric that is all too weak today. In high crime, low-income areas, the vast majority of criminals target people within their own communities. This wasn’t always the case, even back when people lived in far worse poverty, or faced far more discrimination and social hostility. When community-organized mutual aid societies were strong, that random person’s house you might break into to burglarize wouldn’t belong to a random person. It could be the person who, when your family was struggling, brought over some extra groceries to help you get through your tough times. Or it might be someone whose home took some damage in a storm, and you were part of the neighborhood group that banded together to help repair the damage. These kinds of frequent, personal, and face to face acts of goodwill were commonplace prior to the welfare state – when it was believed that helping your neighbor was a personal responsibility, not a bureaucratic mandate to be carried out by politicians.

But though these kinds of actions have been crowded out by the welfare state, the effect has not been uniform. Arthur Brooks has documented in his book Who Really Cares the differences in behavior in charitable giving and volunteer work. His evidence strongly contradicts the weak-man version of the personal responsibility argument. Brooks finds that the less someone supports welfare state programs, the more they tend to give to charity, to do volunteer work, to donate blood, and actively provide help and support to those in need. This is the exact opposite of what we would expect to see if opposition to the welfare state was rooted in heartlessness and a belief that the poor and struggling should be left to their own devices. By contrast, the more someone supports the welfare state, the more their behavior tends to reflect the thought “Many of my neighbors are struggling and in need, but I have voiced support for welfare programs and taxes were deducted from my paycheck to help pay for those programs, so I’ve fulfilled my responsibility! My hands are clean.”

Opponents of the welfare state reject this mentality. Even though their paychecks are also taxed, and those taxes help pay for those same welfare programs, they still view themselves as bearing a personal responsibility to help people in need. And as Brooks documents, their actions reflect this.

Edmund Burke once wrote “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” By this, he meant that the more people exercised temperance, prudence, and virtue, the less need there was for an authority to restrict people’s behavior. But Burke only points out half the story here. He is correct that “the less there is within, the more there must be without,” but it’s also true that the more it comes from without, the less it develops within. As more people have come to view supporting the needy as not a personal responsibility they must exercise, but simply a state responsibility that requires nothing of them beyond their tax bill, the less people are called upon to actively practice the virtues that help bind communities together. Aristotle was right when he said that excellence comes from engaging in virtuous behavior by habit – and the more the need to practice these habits is removed from without, the less such virtues will develop within.